Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are a hot, controversial topic in the news and on social media right now. Interest seems to be high with consumers, farmers, and landlords, so we thought the timing was right to put together a paper on this subject. We wouldn’t go so far as to call this a “position statement,” but rather this paper represents our first efforts in understanding the topic as a whole, as well as putting it in historic context.
I felt very apprehensive when tasked to put this paper together, due to the required legwork it was going to take to get up to speed and fear that whatever got written about this culturally and politically charged topic would irritate some folks. Certainly I have no desire to irritate anyone. Rather, my intent is to provide an unbiased viewpoint that is, hopefully, not slanted due to personal or political beliefs or our desire to maintain farm profitability.
GMO crops have been tested for health and safety for about 20 years now, often including additional safety tests that are beyond those applied to conventionally developed crops. However, much of this testing has been achieved by the companies involved, and there is a lot of employee crossover among the major companies as well as the federal regulatory agencies responsible for oversight. Not surprisingly this creates an environment of mistrust, where concerns over collusion produce less confidence in legitimate scientific findings that come about.
While it is quite difficult to become an expert across the broad depth of scientific fields covered when studying GMO technology, one should be able to synthesize the information that is available to develop a baseline understanding of the topic. If collusion did occur, it would be unlikely that this collusion extended across the table for every study over the past two decades. Consequently, if any research showed significant downsides to the technology, it is reasonable to assume that they would still bubble to the surface, even if the bulk of the research came back with only positive results. In an attempt to identify such artifacts, I tried to spend my time on three different types of websites/information outlets: Pro-GMO sites, Anti-GMO sites, and sites with no apparent bias one way or the other.
This paper constitutes a general summary of thoughts, research, opinions, and concerns identified across the various resources reviewed. Let’s begin by discussing the terminology. According to dictionary.com, the current definition of a GMO is “an organism whose genome has been altered by the techniques of genetic engineering so that its DNA contains one or more genes not normally found there“. We emphasize the phrases “genetic engineering” (GE) and “not normally found there”, as they describe the controversial biological technology and result that comes about. This leads to emotion stirring colloquialisms such as “frankenfoods”, which is used to describe any food product containing at least one GMO-sourced ingredient.
Since farming began thousands of years ago, humans have been modifying their natural environment, including the plants and animals around us. Genetic engineering (GE) techniques are the most recent method used to facilitate such changes, opening up a whole new host of possibilities. As such, a review of the primary plant breeding techniques employed over the years is in order.
The Encyclopedia Britannica defines plant breeding as “the application of genetic principles to produce plants that are more useful to humans.” It is critical to remember that mankind has been altering plant genetics since the dawn of civilization. This was a necessary step to advance civilization by ensuring a stable, healthy, and safe food supply. Most of the crops we see today bear little resemblance to their ancestors. For example, from the simple wild mustard plant, we now have cabbage, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, and kohlrabi. Wheat was the result of the natural hybridization of three wild grasses, and some modern crops don’t even exist in nature, like peppermint, which is a sterile hybrid derived from watermint and spearmint plants.
There are four primary methods for developing new crops, all of which involve changing genetics.
Inbred selection (started when mankind started farming) involves looking at one single variety and then selecting specific seeds to be planted next year based on desired traits observed this year. Seeds would be selected, saved, and replanted from year to year based on visually seeing the desirable traits in the growing plant like good vigor, or yield, or tolerance to disease, for example.
Advantage: Easy to accomplish at farm/garden level; allows one to quickly maximize the utility of a single variety.
Disadvantage: One can only improve a single variety so much before its maximum potential is achieved. For example, a wheat variety that has excellent yield potential is of little value if the characteristics of the grain head make it prone to shatter seeds onto the ground before harvest.
Conventional breeding (which covers a lot of different methods over the years, and started in the 1860s) typically involves cross-breeding two different inbred varieties in an attempt to bring desirable genetic traits from two parents into one offspring. The offspring of each generation that possess the desired traits are selected, and planted again. Over multiple generations of selection, the end result is a single “new” variety dominated by the desired positive traits of the parents in the original cross. This process takes years (many generations) to accomplish but is still the primary method for a number of crops such as wheat and barley.
Advantage: Can combine traits from different varieties into a new variety with superior traits to the original parents. From our wheat example in 1.b, this method allows for that high yielding variety to be crossed with a variety with a tight head (and thus reduced shattering). The end result is a new variety that has the yield from one parent, and a tighter head from the other.
Disadvantage: Takes a long time and many generations to develop a final product with the desired traits, if it can be achieved at all.
Hybridization (started in 1930s) involves taking two dissimilar inbred lines and using the male components of one line to fertilize the female component of the other line (controlled cross pollination). The result is a 1st generation that typically has more vigor than its parents (called heterosis) and is considered a superior genetic product. The downside to hybrids is that heterosis does not hold after the first generation, and the 2nd generation can include all sorts of trait deviations from the first generation and from the original parents. As such, new seed must be remade and purchased each year. Hybridization is common throughout the food production system, from hybrid watermelons and tomatoes in the garden to the majority of corn grown in the United States.
Advantage: Can combine the desirable traits of two dissimilar varieties more quickly than with conventional breeding, and can take advantage of heterosis to provide a superior product as compared to the parents.
Disadvantage: Heterosis falls apart after the 1st generation, and the 2nd generation can include a host of genetic traits (good and bad) from the original parents. As such, this leads to genetic unpredictability between generations, and thus requires the purchase of new seed each year.
Genetic engineering (started in 1990s) involves using rDNA (recombinant DNA) technologies to develop new crops in the lab by artificially recombining different genetic codes. The advantages to this approach are that generally it is more efficient in eliciting the desired behavior than conventional breeding methods, and it allows for specific traits to be added that might not happen in nature. For example, Bt (Bacillus Thuringiensis) is a bacteria in the soil that serves as a natural insecticide (it’s even available as a soil amendment for organic producers). Using GE technology, genetic material from this bacteria have been combined with genetic material from corn to form a new plant that has all the characteristics of corn, but now has a significantly improved resistance to Western Corn Rootworm pressure.
Advantage: Can specifically combine genetics from dissimilar crops/species in a highly efficient manner, thus creating crops with desired traits more quickly than or which cannot even be achieved through conventional breeding. For example, with GE it might be possible to quickly develop a variety that has high salt tolerance, or a tomato that doesn’t require fungicide, or even to produce crops that serve non-food roles, such as for developing vaccines or fuel.
Disadvantages: Mankind has the least experience with crops developed using this method, so naturally we are unsure of the unintended consequences of using this approach. The relative quickness with which this technology has entered and altered modern agriculture amplifies our concerns (i.e., if we identify problems, will the damage already be done based on the market saturation of the crop involved?). Although reams of scientific evaluations have been done on a large number of components of this process, it’s still been only about 20 years since we started, so we don’t know whether longer term problems will arise or not.
Understanding the history of plant breeding technology reminds us that technology always moves in a stepwise fashion. In this light, GE is not necessarily some radical, inherently harmful approach, but rather it is a logical next step in the plant breeding process. The debate really comes down to whether mankind is ready for (capable to manage) this next step. After spending much time thinking about how to organize this paper, I’ve opted to break down the topic into “arguments for” and “arguments against” sections. Most definitely I am not capturing the full scope of the debate in this paper, but rather my intention is to present the ones that seem to be most prevalent in the public discussion.
Arguments against GE crops
Many people seem to feel that GE approaches are too removed from nature and thus should not be used. This argument is difficult to quantify and evaluate, as opinions are all over the place regarding technology adoption and its role (natural or unnatural) in the overall evolution of society. Even among the “not natural” group there is lack of agreement on when genetic engineering can appropriately be used. While some are opposed to developing GE crops, they are fine with providing many thousands of diabetics on the planet with synthetic insulin, which is a product of genetic engineering. History tells us that technology that demonstrates clear benefits will push on, whether we wish it to or not, and putting things “back in the bottle” is nearly impossible.
Although we don’t yet fully understand the long term health impacts of GE crops, many notable health & food organizations* around the globe have stated that food products derived from GE crops pose no greater health risks than the same products from non-GE crop equivalents. We have almost 20 years of evidence now to pull from, and the testing has been extensive, and accomplished globally. Research has focused on every aspect of the food chain, and thus far not much evidence has emerged that GE crops provide a direct health risk. While this sounds very encouraging, the fact of the matter is that it will take a number of generations before the matter can be fully settled. In the meantime, controversy will persist.
With that said, many of these organizations (along with others) have put out statements in support of further testing and package labeling to assist concerned consumers. That is a quite reasonable position to take considering the overall process, the risk of unintended consequences, the short time frame for which we have data, and the relative quickness that GE crops have saturated the food industry. The Grocers Manufactures Association estimates that 70%-80% of processed products purchased in any grocery store contain some component derived from a GE crop. That’s a lot of “frankenfood” that we are already consuming, and have been consuming for over a decade now.
*World Health Organization, FAO, US FDA, AMA, American Council on Science and Health, American Dietetic Association, and many others.
This is where the Frankenstein reference comes in – new technology can have unintended consequences. With regard to GMOs, we are talking about impacts not directly related to the actual derivation of the GE crop, but rather in its management through the food chain. Specifically, there is concern that pollen shed from a GE crop (which carries all the transgenic traits) might cross-pollinate other species, leading to “super weeds” that are more difficult to manage agronomically, or even that possess traits that allow them to cause natural environment damage (think invasive species). Much more commonplace will be the emergence of “super weeds” and “super bugs” that arise through the selective pressure caused by (1) GMO crops themselves, such as overreliance on Bt corn; or (2) GMO crop management, such as overreliance on the herbicide Roundup/glyphosate. Currently more than 85% of corn, soybean, and cotton grown in the US have been engineered to withstand glyphosate so that this chemical can be applied liberally for weed control, and consequently numerous strains of glyphosate resistant weeds have emerged. In the case of GE corn with the Bt trait, which can be found in more than 80% of US corn fields, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that overuse of this technology is leading to rootworms that are no longer affected by the Bt bacteria*. In fact, we’ve had to add more “modes of action” to corn today to provide the same level of insect protection as was accomplished in first generation GE crops 15 years ago. Additionally, there are many organisms both in the soil and above ground that serve vitally important roles in supporting agriculture, and we don’t know what the long term affects for using GE technology is on these systems.
One interesting line of study that has caught hold over the past decade is potential indirect GMO effects on our stomach flora, which comprise a complex compilation of micro-organisms that not only regulate food digestion processes and movement through our system, but also impact our immune systems, synthesize vitamins, and protect against harmful organisms. All of this together drives our health, energy levels, weight, and general feeling of wellness. Our heavier reliance on processed foods over past decades has changed this micro-environment to a degree where multiple companies now sell products to bring things back into balance (e.g., yogurt or supplements containing probiotics). Some research has identified a potential connection between stomach flora issues and glyphosate, which this would fall into the “unintended consequences” category as it’s not the GE crop that is a potential problem, but rather the management of the GE crop.
*As of March 2014, populations of western corn rootworms with resistance to Bt have been confirmed in Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, and Minnesota, and were being tested for in Kansas, Colorado, Missouri, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and New York.
Arguments for GE crops
“Improved agricultural production”
Increasing agricultural production is the motivation for the development of GE crops, which certainly have been effective in this regard. The graph below from UC Davis shows the breeding technology impacts on corn yields over time. Notice that each new breeding technology brings a steep increase in yield. Granted, there are other things that come into play here (like improvements in fertility and soil management), but there can be little doubt that improved plant breeding results in higher yields, and thus higher production.
As we continue to try to feed the world’s population (expected to be 8 billion by 2030 and 9 billion by 2050), it will be necessary to continue to increase agricultural output per unit of land area in order to keep up. Because of their much broader range of potential outcomes, GE crops offer more potential to achieve this than either conventional or hybrid plant breeding methods.
“Allows for improved conservation of agricultural farm land”
For every crop that includes natural immunity to yield robbers like insects or disease, less surface-applied insecticide and fungicide is required. Surface application of these products is not only risky to those doing the work, but often rainfall and other environmental factors cause these applied products to end up in non-target places like our river systems and reservoirs (i.e., in our drinking water supplies in many cases), and minimizing their use is thus environmentally desirable. Additionally, chemical solutions for things like weed control minimize the amount of mechanical soil disturbance necessary to optimally grow crops. This reduced need for tillage not only is beneficial to soil ecology (and thus crop production), but also heavily mitigates soil erosion and degradation by increasing infiltration and water holding capacity and thus reducing runoff. Over time, it may be possible to create non-legume species that fix their own nitrogen from the atmosphere, thereby eliminating another major pollutant (applied nitrogen fertilizer) that often ends up in our river systems via runoff.
“Offers the potential to change nutrition/food deficiencies throughout the world”
We are very spoiled in the developed world with cheap calories and a vast array of safe, available, and nutritionally rich foods with which we can meet our individual requirements. Much of the world is not so lucky, with 1 out of 9 occupants of the Earth not receiving enough food each day to live a normal lifestyle. Poor nutrition causes about 3.1 million deaths per year in children under the age of five according to the World Food Program (WFP). A fine example of a trade-off with a GE crop is the story of Golden Rice. UNICEF estimates over 1 million children die annually from Vitamin A deficiency (not to mention the millions more that don’t die but become blind or suffer from other diseases due to a compromised immune system). Golden Rice is a GE crop that had two genes inserted into it that open the ability for the plant to accumulate beta-carotene, which the body can readily convert to Vitamin A. Results have shown that a single serving of Golden Rice can provide up 60% of daily requirements in children. Yet fear over GE crop safety is preventing adoption of this food in problem areas of the world, thus allowing for these medical problems/deaths to continue despite the fact that Golden Rice appears to offer a simple solution.
Conventional plant breeding brought more yield stability and nutritionally dense food stuffs, but we quickly hit plateaus with these methods. Hybridization came along and greatly helped increase production, partly through increased per-plant production but primarily through increased planting density (i.e., higher planting populations). GE technologies offer the potential to take production even higher by increasing drought tolerance, resistance to pests/diseases, yield, and nutrient densities, plus a host of other potential benefits that will help folks grow more crops in more places.
The Bottom line
With new technologies come new risks, trade-offs, and benefits. There is little question that if improperly managed, the advantage provided by GE crops can quickly be negated (e.g., glyphosate tolerant weed species have erupted across the United States due to over-reliance on glyphosate and glyphosate-tolerant GE crops). In the same account, properly managed GE crops offer the potential to continue to meet global nutrition demands, minimize soil degradation, open new areas to stable crop production (these areas tend to be most hit by starvation and nutrient deficiency), and open a whole new world of custom crafted crops that can be used for specific health purposes (like Golden Rice). There are a lot of food/nutrition problems around the globe, but they are very different between the developed and developing worlds, and these differences need to be accounted for in evaluations. Harm mitigation is not a popular approach in the United States as we prefer an “all in” or “all out” position on things. I come back to the Golden Rice example, where the risks of potential future harm are seemingly dwarfed by the immediate, real, and measured harm that otherwise exists.
Although the health and nutritional aspects of GE crops have been tested extensively over the past 20 years (and generally have been found to be safe, for the most part), this testing needs to continue to ensure that we aren’t creating problems that will accumulate over time. Additionally, there might be other unintended consequences that we have yet to consider and currently aren’t testing for. From a production standpoint, one immediate and pressing need seems to be how to improve our management and use of GMO crops so as to prolong the effectiveness of specific traits such as Bt corn and glyphosate tolerance by lessening selective pressures that are fostering the emergence of “super weeds” and “super bugs”.
We are very supportive of transparency and allowing the consumer to dictate what we produce. Labeling is a natural consumer protection technique that needs to be considered with the adoption of new technologies that have not yet stood the test of time. The difficulty here is determining what to put on the label as we know that the more information on it, the less likely folks will actually read it. As mentioned above, GE food derivatives are already found in the bulk of processed food items at the grocery store, so if everything is labeled GE does it really do much for our food decision, other than increase cost? Perhaps the easiest approach would be to focus on continuing to label the non-GMO products. That would preserve the ability of food-conscious folks to make informed decisions, without incurring additional cost (and confusion) to the majority of grocery shoppers who tend to be more price sensitive than they are food-origin sensitive.
From a farm perspective, we neither adamantly oppose nor adamantly endorse GE crops, but rather seek to maintain a high level of land stewardship and economic farm sustainability. Today, that involves using GE corn on our farm along with non-GE crops like yellow peas, wheat, and grain sorghum. Those are the crops we have identified that allow us to best achieve our stewardship to profitability goals. Removing GE corn from our rotation would not be as deleterious economically as it would be for Midwest Corn Belt growers, but it would initially result in an economic loss to our operation and to our landlords.
As we move into the future, we will not only start to build a more complete picture of GE crop trade-offs, but also we will have to contemplate adoption of other GE crops that currently are conventional (like wheat). Although we have reserved confidence that the net impacts of bio-engineering are a benefit, we also realize that this industry is moving quickly, which makes it all the more important to listen to opposing voices, opinions, and research.